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on September 27, 2004
Through the point of view of Charlie Merrill in all but one crucial spot, A Distant Flame pulls us right up to the fire and passion of the experience of the War Between the States for the ordinary Southern boy. It sears that experience onto a permanent sense of reflection seeking understanding which, we learn, is attainable this side of death. Deft time switching from the novel's "present," 1914, back to a sickly boy's consideration of early Civil War 1862 and to his actual participation in the Chicamauga to Atlanta events of 1864. All this in the context of a 50-year survivor's ultimate chore--understanding it. Loss of loved ones on multiple levels, all genuine and honest. Objectivity and distance as a survival strategy, represented by Charlie's sharpshooting. This is in some ways a novel of "Compensation" (with a clever nod to Mr. Emerson). Not a line of drudgery. Though not comic, written with appropriate humor. The horror does not titillate. Nor does the romance in this anti-romance reflective of the 50 years of post Civil War American literary realism. In the end, it is not about the South, however: Charlie could have been from Goshen, Indiana, or a town in Michigan, just as well.

This novel is its own screenplay. It has more to say and show than Cold Mountain and more about the soldier and the town in the war than Killer Angels even pretends to offer.

Buy it. Read it. It is a modern story well told.
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on November 17, 2005
While young Charlie Merrill can hit a target 2,000 yards away with a Whitlock rifle, he is an unlikely soldier. We see him before the war as a frail, sickly teenager who is well-schooled in poetry and classical literature, living in one of the many North Georgia towns that is not altogether convinced in the wisdom of secession, much less war. We see Charlie Merrill in 1914 as his home town prepares to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Atlanta, thinking back on the loss and the sacrifice and the love that tied them together. And those of us who have walked the old works of Kennesaw Mountain where hikers now commune with a quiet wood and families spread out blankets and picnics on the warm grass of summer afternoons, see Charlie Merrill in in the contrasting bloody hell of 1864 rendered here in graphic detail. This novel received the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction in 2004. It is a well-deserved honor, for A Distant Flame stands very near the top of the 80,000 books published about the civil war.
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on March 30, 2006
A literary Civil War novel that alternates between Charlie Merrill's grim existence as a sharpshooter in the Army of Tennessee, his sickly but love-touched boyhood and his old age.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel and I note from the other blurbs and reviews it's gotten that my opinion is a somewhat contrarian one.

I certainly have no issue with the research, which appears to have been painstaking. I found, though, that my engagement with the story wavered many times as I read. I honestly can't decide if this is a significant literary work told in a poetic style or if it's essentially sentimental in its themes and given to purple prose in its execution. I had trouble with the narrative's total humorlessness, with the saintly profundity of every character, with the endless repetition of variants on "Slavery was wrong." Yeah, obviously slavery was wrong. Every modern reader, hopefully, realizes that. But I'm not really convinced that the nineteenth-century Georgian character Charlie Merrill would realistically feel so unequivocally about it, and, as ever, the statement would have worked better shown than told. The race relations shown in the novel are all actually idyllic.

And along those same lines, I'm tired of reading about Confederate characters who don't believe in what they're fighting for. I think sophisticated modern readers can deal with protagonists who are fighting for a variety of reasons, some of which we do not consider today to be good. Merrill's lack of commitment to any aspect of his cause (whether resisting invasion or states' rights or his comrades, except for his single companion Duncan, or slavery) actually makes his battlefield actions more, not less, morally questionable for me. It severely undermines the quality of moral spokesmanship that I think the novel is trying to give him.

I was more moved by the failed-romance aspect of the story than I was by the war aspect, which is unusual for me.

I think this would probably appeal to readers who enjoyed books like Cold Mountain more than to readers who enjoy, say, David Poyer's Civil War novels. As for its overall quality, I'm just not sure.
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on November 1, 2004
This work is fundamentally different from most historical novels of the Civil War. It is interesting in that it gives more than a singular temporal sequence of wartime events surrounding the main character's involvement in the Battle of Atlanta. This presents a varied chronological sequence (and commensurate changing perspective) as viewed through the long lens of fifty years.

Without revealing too much detail, this story is told from pre-war, late-war, and long post-war perspectives of a Confederate soldier. Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" most aptly delved into long-sought hopes and dreams postponed, a theme that defined the life of many Confederate soldiers throughout and during the closing days of the War. Without taking anything from Mr. Frazier's book, "A Distant Flame" travels one step further. This work allows the final chapter to be written as it relates to an old Confederate soldier's life. It focuses on his struggles to find meaning in not only the events that surrounded his participation in the War, but also, with regard to a lifetime of hopes and the weight of disappointments relating to family and friends lost, and of love unwillingly deferred. From the perspective of this reader, in the end it tells a tale of hope and redemption.

I highly recommend this work. It is a well written, high caliber book [appropriate to that most effective for a sharpshooter]. It is hoped that the author (Philip Lee Williams) will have much more in store for us fortunate readers in the future.
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on June 7, 2013
One of the better civil war novels, or any other, for that matter. Well written with a good use of language, a believable story and vivid characters. The order of chapters is complex but easy to follow. The book takes place in 3 different periods of time and the chapters take turns rotating among those 3 time periods, as opposed to following one another chronologically. It sound confusing but it's not, because the author used this device skillfully to add interest and drama.
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VINE VOICEon September 12, 2007
Philip Lee Williams' poignant Civil War novel about the beginning of the 1864 Atlanta campaign is a classic. Charlie Merrill, the central character, is everyman. He is the essence of THE Confederate soldier late in the Civil War when defeat was known to be inevitable yet duty, honor, and country demands to soldier on. Mr. Williams portrayal of the battles are historically accurate and well done, yet he uses his poetic license to examine the psyche of the common confederate soldier in the total context of those horrific times. Sad yes, but oh so glorious in a spiritual sort of way. The horrors that young Merrill sees and experiences are all too graphic yet he continues on wrapped in the friendship of his comrades.
The story is really a 3 part examination of Charlie Merrill's life during those difficult days. Mr. Williams artfully weaves the younger Merrill's life with the horrendous fighting of the 1864 Atlanta campaign, and his older life 50 years later when he is to give a keynote address to his hometown about the Fall of Civil War Atlanta. Charlie Merrill is a complex character that is slowly developed by Mr. Williams. Charlie is everyman of those chaotic times. He loves, cries, grows, and eventually understands the meaning of it all. Times change but memories endure.
Overall an amazing book. Outstanding character development in all respects. The complex relationships between Charlie and others in the book are well developed and although sad represent the circle of life in all its profoundness.
No gratuitous sex, language, or violence. The battle scenes are well done and not too graphic but necessary to the story.
Highly recommended, especially to those interested in the Civil War. A superb novel that anyone would enjoy. Good job Mr. Williams.
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on November 19, 2004
I actually go to the University of Georgia where Phil Williams is faculty at and have attended many of his readings which are very interesting and entertaining. I am afraid that I am not as good at critiquing books as the following reveiws, however I just wanted to make sure everyone knew what a wonderful author Phil Williams truly is. The research that was put into this book, he told one group it took 10 years of research and writing for A Distant Flame. What a passionate writer!
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on November 29, 2008
A Distant Flame is one of the very best novels of The War, in my opinion. I have so many unread excellent war histories - hundreds - in my collection, that I normally can't spare the time for fiction, but seeing the recommendation of R.K. Krick, I took a chance, and I'm glad I did. (Krick is a real expert and author on The War.) A lot of history is learned in the book.
The setting is Northwest Georgia in 1864, with Joe Johnston's army of around 60,000 Confederates facing "Cump" Sherman's army, twice as large and headed south. Charlie Merrill is a southern teenager, under General Pat Cleburne.
Charlie is not really furious with the invaders he is fighting, so his assignment as an excellent sniper sits heavy on his conscience and wears away his resolve, eventually bringing his effectiveness to an end. He and his comrades become sympathetic to the reader, and you appreciate the terrain and battles of Sherman's campaign from Resaca, Georgia, to Atlanta. Even the love affair is sweet, if incomplete.
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on May 4, 2008
The front of this book says it is, "A Superb Book" It does not lie. It further states this book should be considered "A Classic of Civil War fiction." It is that. It ranks right up there with "The Black Flower" by Howard Bahr and Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier. A love story set amidst the ravages of war, it is a masterpiece of emotional reading. for the Civil War buff, a must read, for everyone else, an excellent book to spend some time with. A Hallmark card of 300 pages. Get yourself something to drink and set yourself down in a nice, comfortable chair.
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on January 26, 2013
Not my favorite book....I have been a student of the War Between the States for many years and while this book was OK, it was not my favorite
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